|God’s all-knowing plan seen in desperate life of Karen pastor
By Barbara Denman
January 2, 2014
14 years of age Thu Lai Mu and his family were forced into the jungles of
Burma, now Myanmar, to escape a repressive, military-led civil war and ethnic
cleansing that ended in killing, torture, rape and forced labor of their Karen (pronounced
kuh-ren) people group.
we were the minority group, they wanted to wipe us out,” said Lai Mu, making
them flee their beloved ancestral homes.
discovered hiding in the jungles, the family again fled for their lives to
Thailand where they were held in a crowded refugee camp along the
Myanmar-Thailand border. For 15 desolate
years, Lai Mu endured the camp’s primitive conditions in makeshift huts
fashioned from bamboo and leaves, no plumbing or electricity and scant food.
was difficult,” Lai Mu recalled. “We were surrounded by barbed-wire fenced. If
we go outside, the police considered us as illegals, and we would be sent to
prison or back to Burma.”
life looked pretty bleak, admitted the young man. “We were a persecuted people.
We faced years of persecution.”
Burmese people had been converted to Christianity through the ministry of
Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson, who served in Burma for almost 40 years in
the mid 1800s. And as an outgrowth of that missionary witness, Lai Mu found a
new hope while in the refugee camp after accepting Christ at age 16.
United Nations oversight, the refugees were able to attend school, which Lai Mu
took advantage of and continued his studies for five years at a Bible college.
he waited and prayed. “God was preparing me in that time. I asked God to lead
me in His will. I did not know that he would lead me here.”
years ago, Lai Mu and members of his family were resettled in Jacksonville
where a growing population of Karen live in low-income apartments on the city’s
Southside. And even through the difficult transition in a strange new culture,
he continued to see God constant guidance in his life. “God is good,” he often
was tapped by the U.S. State Department as a resettlement city for Burmese
refugees, which included several people groups, as well as the Chin and Karen.
The Karen are the largest concentration of refugees in the city, and its
language accounts for the second most spoken language in the Duval County School
program, behind English.
Mu, now 32 with a wife and child, serves as pastor of the Karen congregation of
Jacksonville’s Southside Baptist Church, the only Karen-language-speaking
church in the Florida Baptist Convention.
week, between 250 and 300 Karen refugees, mostly young adults and children,
pack a room at the southside church to worship and study the Bible in their own
language. Many wearing traditional garbs, the Karen fill every available chair
in the room to listen to Pastor Lai Mu preach from God’s word.
arrival in Jacksonville was “an answer to prayer” said Southside Pastor Gary
Webber, at a time they were looking for someone to lead the congregation.
planting of the Karen church began when Southside discovered the large concentration
of refugee families during a Backyard Bible Club held at a nearby apartment
complex. There they found a group brought to a strange land by refugee
resettlement agencies who were overwhelmed and bewildered by the urban foreign
by their needs, Southside started English as a Second Language classes
specifically to minister to the group.
these ESL classes grew a new church.
an outgrowth of the ministry, Southside members began meeting the multiple
needs of the Karen community: translating for the baffled non-English-speaking
parents at schools; accompanying them to doctor and hospital appointments; and
navigating them through a maze of immigration and government bureaucracy. The
church provided citizen classes which helped the refugees understand the norms
of the American culture and laws, and recently began a Pre-kindergarten class
to prepare the preschoolers for school.
heart for the Karen people just opened up,” said Webber, who was called as
pastor of the church in 2008. “As we began ministries the Karen began
recognizing Southside as a place they experienced love and acceptance.”
Christian refugees began attending worship services and events at the church,
even if they could not understand the words or make conversation. As their
numbers grew, a worship service in their own language was provided for the
adults while the children who were speaking English in school were assimilated
into Southside’s Sunday school classes.
the process, while the church ministered to the Karen people, a renewal took
place at Southside, an inner city church experiencing turbulent times and a
we sacrificed ourselves, God just wanted to pour out blessings. We found a
renewed heart for ministry and a new understanding of being a church,” said
first, the Karen church elected men from within to preach and lead. When Lai Mu
came, both the Karen church members and Southside leaders saw his quiet servant
was tapped as pastor and in a partnership forged between the Karen church,
Southside Church, Jacksonville Baptist Association and the Florida Baptist
Convention, the congregation became Florida Baptists’ only Karen language
state convention provided start-up funds and church planting assistance said
Rick Lawrence, Florida Baptist church planting field missionary. Lai Mu
currently participates in church planting peer learning groups jointly
sponsored by the convention and association.
credit must be given to Webber’s mentoring of the young pastor, said Lawrence,
crediting the older pastor with guidance, encouragement and support of the
Lai Mu took the helm, the church has grown by more than 50 percent and new
believers have been baptized. He spends as many as 12 hours a day meeting the
needs of the Karen refugees, joined in this ministry by Southside member Laura
Miller, who works tirelessly on their behalf.
is very powerful and we are blest because we found Southside,” said Lai Mu. “God
prepared this church for us. It is a blessing.”
“I pray to God, if He wants me to lead this
people, it is your will, give me more wisdom. I pray God will do His will.”
God’s infinite wisdom, Lai Mu’s desperate journey has brought him to the place
that He had prepared him for, helping his people cope with physical needs while
thriving spiritually in a place they could never have imagined.